The muddled view of the English countryside has been discussed before, for example in the For What Is Chatteris column. Sometimes seen as mystical, sometimes downright boring, sometimes the backdrop for a picnic or Sunday drive, more often an arcadia to escape to from the dark satanic mills of urban life. Sometimes, though, it has been pointed out that it can be pretty grim and miserable- The Hard Times of Old England - though I don’t think there is anything about English rural life that quite matches the Violent Femmes’ Country Death Song in making a cloud of gloom descend on the listener. (The next track on the album this comes from starts ‘I hear the rain, I hear the rain, I hear the rain, got to feel the pain’)
I grew up in Dorset, one of the most rural of English counties, and my childhood was spent in Poole, Portland, Weymouth and around, a mixture of the English seaside and the hills and valleys of the inland countryside. An odd combination in a way – a Donald McGill postcard versus a chocolate box image. Plebeian fish and chips, candy floss and donkey rides on one hand and the more genteel –superficially at least - thatched cottages, village churches and County shows on the other. Some of the landscape remains pretty timeless. Far From the Madding Crowd and The French Lieutenant's Woman were both filmed there and the famous Hovis advert from 1973 was not, as the ad implied, filmed somewhere in a northern town like Hebden Bridge but the Dorset village of Shaftesbury.
Growing up there, I made little association between pop music and the places I lived then. Those I did have, in fact, could be very convoluted. At a young and impressionable age I once spied Dusty Springfield on Weymouth esplanade and asked for her autograph. She, however, declined the request and I became converted to the opinion that actually I liked Lulu better. Like everyone, a snatch of a song can bring back childhood memories like Proust’s madeleine but that is because I heard the tune in a particular place at a particular time, not because the song was about that place. Songs were meant to be about faraway places with strange sounding names – Capri or Amsterdam, Honolulu or Siam, not Sturminster Newton or Blandford Forum. That would be both unthinkable and risible, as there is something intrinsically not rock and roll about Dorset .In fact, few English counties are. Carolina In My Mind sounds fine, Suffolk In My Mind doesn’t. Sweet Home Alabama –yes, OK. Sweet Home Buckinghamshire –not really. Songs about places like that were either the provenance of earnest folk singers in Aran sweaters and a finger in their ear or comedy acts. In fact, English rural life has provided a rich source of musical humour over the years, from Benny Hill’s Gather In the Mushrooms to The Wurzels' Combine Harvester (a UK Number One in 1976) to The Darkness and English Country Garden. Other than that, there were The Yetties (a kind of Dorset Wurzels) and Dorset is Beautiful. Oh yes, and Robert Fripp and Al Stewart both grew up in the market town of Wimborne Minster, though its influence isn’t obvious in the music of either. (The town is best known for a model village, so that you can visit Wimborne and walk round a set-up of Wimborne in miniature. I am surprised King Crimson didn’t do something to expand on this theme)
Behind the rolling hills and the bustle of the seaside there was also an insularity. To some on Portland – an ‘almost island’ connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach – Weymouth, about 4 miles away with its fancy slot machine arcades and cinema, was a mixture of Sodom and Gomorrah, Gay Paree and Las Vegas. There were even stories of people who had gone from Weymouth on the steamer to Guernsey and had French food. Why would they do that when they could go and sit on the shingle at Dead Man's Bay with a bag of Portland dough cakes? In fact, those who lived on Tophill on Portland even viewed those from Underhill with suspicion and vice versa.(The Donny and Marie Osmond hit, Morning Side of the Mountain, comes to mind here – “There was a girl, there was a boy, if they had met they might have found a world of joy. But he lived on the morning side of the mountain and she on the twilight side of the hill”. Or if he lived in Underhill and she lived in Tophill).It was uniformly white. The only black faces to be seen were on the Black and White Minstrel Show on Saturday night TV.
Yet there was also underneath it all at times something else, a glimpse of the past, of the lost wild gods of England and the distant echoes of an old and forgotten way of life. You could sense it on Chalbury Hill, looking out from the ancient burial mounds across the hills and hedges towards the Roman road coming out from Dorchester, with the giant hill figure at Cerne Abbas, on the chalk cliffs above the fossils at Lyme or in the small and eerie ruined churches standing on pagan sites. I once came across such a deserted church while walking as a child along the cliffs above Portland: peeking in the heavy wooden door to feel a sudden chill was the only time I have felt somewhere could really be haunted. Those feelings are captured in the song here, White Chalk from 2007 by P J (Polly) Harvey, originally from Bridport in Dorset. There is something haunting and unsettling about it, as there is about much of her music. On the cover of the album of the same name she is seated in white looking like a figure from a Victorian séance and the voice sounds as if from another dimension.
It is relatively rare that a song captures exactly one’s own feeling about a place, in such a perfect match that the song and place become the same. For me, Waterloo Sunset does. Scott Walker’s Copenhagen does with a couple of lines-‘Copenhagen , you’re the end, gone and made me child again’ - and an enchanting fade-out. And so does White Chalk, floating like a dream from a childhood memory : “White chalk sticking to my shoes. White chalk playing as a child with you. White chalk south against time. White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme .I walk the valleys by the Cerne, on a path cut fifteen hundred years ago”. A memorable song about an English rural county after all and not a single joke about Farmer Giles’ giant marrow or a morris dancer in sight.